Pastor Nguyen Xuan Ha relayed the message to the children and workers of the Cam Ranh City Orphanage that the South Vietnamese army could not stop the communist juggernaut.
The last Americans had been evacuated from Saigon, and North Vietnamese tanks had crashed the gates of the presidential palace. The iron curtain had descended over Vietnam. It was April 30, 1975.
It was time to set sail. A once-sunken boat that Ha and some of the older orphan boys had patched up hardly seemed seaworthy, but it would have to do.
They had been on the run since April 2. They fled south from Cam Ranh Bay to Phan Thiet, dodging firefights along the way. From Phan Thiet, they made their way to Saigon, and from Saigon to Rach Gia on the southern coast.
“When I look back on my journey, it reminds me of the movie ‘The 10 Commandments’ when Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt,” said Thomas Ho, who was one of the oldest children in the orphanage, built in 1967 by American servicemen, Vietnamese Christians and Southern Baptist missionaries.
“In the modern world, God is still in control. He still performs miracles around us every day,” Ho said. “In 1975, pastor Nguyen Xuan Ha led 69 orphans and more out of Vietnam to the U.S., the land of opportunity, safely. I believe God took great care of us.” Also on the 35-foot-long boat, which had been refashioned with three decks, were 13 workers from the orphanage and 13 of their children.
Photo courtesy of Cam Rahn Orphans
Nearly 70 orphans boarded a patched-up boat on the southern coast of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, to begin a journey to freedom that brought them to the U.S.
Ho, now an air conditioning repairman and member of the Vietnamese Baptist Church of Garland, Texas, can close his eyes and smell the sea, hear the sound of children singing on the boat, and remember the prayers he and others prayed for deliverance.
A journey begins
Ho’s journey to America began with his arrival at the Cam Ranh City Orphanage after the death of his parents. His mother died when he was two months old. His father, who fought in the South Vietnamese army, was killed in 1967. Ho’s aunt also was killed when their town was shelled in the middle of the night.
He still remembers the sight.
When an artillery shell landed near their shelter, Ho’s aunt told him to go to the bunker next door while his uncle treated a cousin’s leg wound. His aunt pledged to follow but was cut down by an explosion.
“I looked back and saw my aunt with her right hand holding her stomach. Every organ was exposed, but she still called out to me asking if I was safe. She died a few hours later,” Ho recounted.
Ho made his way to Cam Ranh city, where he saw a bus full of orphan children handing out toys for other children. He knew an orphanage would offer him clothes, food and an education, so he asked to be placed under the care of the new facility.
At the orphanage, Ho met Southern Baptist missionaries Walter Routh Jr. and Jim and Margaret Gayle. Routh and the Gayles were career missionaries and had already seen the horrors of the war. They did what they could to make life bearable for the children.
“The earliest memory that I have of the orphanage is that the place was full of life, happiness, and everyone cared for each other,” Ho said. “I also couldn’t wait until Wednesdays and Saturdays because we would receive gifts, toys, go on picnics and play with the Marines [at a nearby military base].”
Routh left Vietnam, but the Gayles stayed on until they were furloughed in 1974. They planned to return to Vietnam, but the collapse of the South Vietnamese government removed that possibility. It also left the Gayles wondering what happened to the orphans for whom they cared so much.
Rescue at sea
Two days into the escape in 1975, the orphans’ boat ran out of fuel, leaving them adrift far off the coast of South Vietnam with no food and little water. And then, God provided an answer to their prayers.
A Taiwanese freighter appeared on the horizon. Pastor Ha pleaded for help but the ship refused to tow the orphans’ boat. Everyone on board prayed again for deliverance.
Ho, then a teenager, said the freighter slowly turned around. The ship’s sailors secured a tow line and the orphans were towed toward Singapore.
Southern Baptist missionaries in Singapore worked with the U.S. State Department to transfer the orphans to America. When their plane landed at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas a month later, missionary Jim Gayle was the first person to walk into the plane to greet them.
“We were so happy. I thought I would never see him again after he left Vietnam,” Ho said. “But seeing him again, all my worry left … I felt like I was witnessing a miracle.”
The Cam Ranh orphans eventually were taken in by the Buckner Children’s Home in Dallas. After being assessed for their educational needs, the children were placed in adoptive homes. Today, they are doctors and businessmen, fathers and mothers – and American citizens.
But Vietnam still tugs at their hearts, Ho said.
“I miss Vietnam. It’s the country of my birth and where I was raised. I do pray for both the people of Vietnam and the government,” he said. “In Vietnam today, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. There is no freedom of speech or religion.”
Many of the Cam Ranh orphans returned to Vietnam in 2010 for the first time with Jim and Margaret Gayle. The group plans to return again later this year, but this time without Jim Gayle. After suffering through a long battle with cancer, Gayle died in 2014.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gregory Tomlin is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas.)